Tiny Sicilian Town is Giving Homes Away—Literally

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Property hunters and bargain hounds take note: If you're in the market for a Sicilian escape, the tiny town of Gangi has a deal for you. Act now and you could get a historic home for the low, low price of nothing at all (up to a nominal fee).

Gangi has been shrinking for centuries. Starting in the late 1800s, emigration from Sicily to America was heavily encouraged by agents for trans-Atlantic ocean liners. Between 1892 and 1924, about 1700 Gangi residents landed in New York, according to records at Ellis Island. Not huge numbers, but still a sizable portion of the dwindling population, which dropped to 16,000 by the 1950s and today hovers around just 7000.

The years of exodus left many old buildings empty and susceptible to degradation. The homes have a unique three-story structure, called pagglialore, that once housed donkeys on the ground floor, chickens and goats in the middle, and the farmer's family on the top. Now, town officials are trying to find owners to give these long-empty structures new life.

Gangi isn't the first Italian town to try to drum up residents for abandoned buildings with a can't-miss deal. A few years ago, the Sicilian town of Salemi announced plans to sell properties ruined in an earthquake many decades before for a single euro each; the offer never came to fruition. A similar initiative failed in Carrega Ligure, a town in the Piedmont region, after the local government learned that, by law, the municipal administration can only sell properties for market value—no less.

It's a poor track record, but steps have been taken to ensure no such fate befalls Gangi. The local government won't actually buy any of the empty homes outright, but will act as a mediator between buyers and sellers. And to ease potential new owners wary of the notorious Italian home-buying red-tape, there's a team in place to help streamline the process.

"The bureaucracy is what worries people most, but we don’t sell a house and leave people alone," Alessandro Cilibrasi, a local real estate agent who assists the municipality in the initiative, told the New York Times.

And besides, it's already working: More than 100 houses have been given away or sold for less than market prices. The majority of these have gone to Sicilians looking for a weekend getaway, or to other Italians. There are about 200 similar properties left on the market, with a sizable waiting list for interested owners.

“We don’t want people just because they have money,” Giuseppe Ferrarello, the mayor, said. “We want to know what you’re going to do with the houses.”

One of the things you have to do with the house is renovate—right away. The offer for the free homes [PDF] comes with a stipulation that buyers must begin renovations within a year of purchasing and complete the work within four years.

But in the end, Ferrarello is sure the work will be worth it, comparing the island's interior to Italy's famed great heart: “Umbria has nothing on Sicily."

[h/t New York Times]